Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design


Spaghetti, anyone?

What's all this?  Colorful spaghetti from Saizeriya Italian Restaurant? (萨莉亚意大利餐厅)  Actually I found it on the wall in the metro office at Gongyuanqian station.  It's a map of Guangzhou subway, present and future.  Blue represents lines open prior to 2010, red shows lines set to open in 2010, and green is lines under construction that will open in future years.  Line 5 has already opened of course, that's the red line running through the center from left to right.

Guangzhou is opening so many new metro lines this year, it is mind boggling!  Here are the changes we will see by the end of the year:

  • line 5 opened in January, that's the red line running through the center of the city from left to right.
  • line 4 will extend north two stations from Chebeinan to one of the Asian Games stadiums.
  • line 3 will extend north to the airport.  (for some reason, there will still be two line 3s.  The current line 3 between Panyu Square and Tianhe Coach Terminal will remain.  The new line 3 run between Tiyuxi Lu and Airport North.)
  • The current L-shaped line 2 will be split into two lines.  The portion between Wanshengwei and Xiaogang will be renamed line 8, and will be extend four stations to the west.  The portion between Jiangnanxi and Sanyuanli will remain as line 2, and will be extended to the new South train station to the south, and will extend north to intersect with the line to the airport.
  • The long-delayed GF (Guangzhou to Foshan) line will open from Xiliang at the west end of line 1, and going west thirteen stations into Foshan City (not shown on the map).  It will be the first inter-city metro in China.

Of course, delays in opening metros are common in China.  Projected opening dates are given and then pushed back repeatedly for years.  This time I think the city is really committed to opening the line to the airport in time for the Asian Games this November.  But if the GF line fails to materialize this year, nobody will be too shocked.

Besides what you can see on the map, Guangzhou Metro's long term planning calls for 19 lines by 2020.  But with the current additions, Guangzhou's metro transit is now starting to take shape.  It's beginning to look less like scattered lines and more like the interconnected spaghetti subway of a world class city.  Even second tier cities in China are now busy constructing metros. Construction costs are still relatively low because labor is cheap and the cities are not yet fully developed.  Chinese cities current wave of investment in metro systems is a wise choice.  It means they will have the chance to be competitive as vital and efficient urban centers for decades.


New generation train stations

China still travels by rail.  That may not be news to you, but let's make a comparison.

In my hometown, there is a beautiful old train station. The grand passenger building guards over the city's main axis, it's heavy carved stone stacked in arches. Behind is a soaring iron and glass train shed. In the 1940's, when most Americans traveled by rail, it was one of the busiest train stations in the country. It closed in the seventies, after the number of passengers declined so much that the station could no longer support itself. These days it's used as a hotel and a mall. It's a common story.  As passenger travel shifted to highway and plane, US passenger rail shrank to a bare minimum served by Amtrak, and much of the original infrastructure was lost. In china, the old way of traveling by rail is changing very quickly, but it isn't giving up on rail travel.

The old generation.  A train station in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province

China's old railway stations are relatively chaotic places, teeming with people trying to get somewhere else.  China had a station building boom in the 60s and 70s.  Most stations are low and flat, the only defining characteristic is a few giant red characters standing on the roof to represent the city name.  Inside dark passenger waiting rooms, people wait on rows of dirty molded fiberglass chairs.  There are often beautiful murals with socialist or traditional Chinese themes.  The environment always seems tense with fear of thieves, others, police.  If you ever happen to see indications of social instability in China, its most likely to be in old train stations.

A mural inside the passenger waiting room at Taiyuan Station

The Guangzhou-Wuhan high speed train, which opened last December, takes just 3 hours to make the journey, at a top speed of 350km.  It connects the biggest city in southern China with one of the bigger cities in central China.  A big part of this project was the 2 new terminal stations built at both ends. Eventually, this line will be extended north all the way to Beijing.

The China Ministry of Railways is building new stations for it's high speed rail lines.  Each station is a major infrastructure project costing around US$1 billion each.  The existing stations in both cities were deemed already overcrowded and unable to handle the additional passenger load of the high speed train. The area around stations today are dense with development related to the proximity of the station, so it's hard to build something new there. The new stations are far outside the city center, a 45 minute subway or bus ride away.  It's probable that the areas around the new stations will eventually be densely developed. These stations will create major cities around themselves, pulling the center of the old cities toward them.

But for now, the stations are still surrounded by farm land.  These stations are huge, you can see them rise like small hills as you approach.  The feature that seems to connect the new stations is they are all open and light-filled.  The ceilings incorporate skylights, and the light is usually moderated by lovers or shades.

The next generation. The new Wuhan station, which features an open train platform in the center

Wuhan station detail

The new Guangzhou South station and its dramatic arching roof

Beijing South Station.  With some fake palm trees, just for fun

They all seem to be descendants of the old glass and steel train sheds of Europe, like the old train station in my hometown.  The new stations are relatively calm.  One reason is that poor travelers can't afford the high speed tickets, so there are much fewer people in a much larger space. But the stations are not that relaxing, not to me. The stations are grandiose statements, and the images are all postcard worthy.  But there isn't much that is scaled to people. All the interesting detail of the building is raised far above your head, with little that is interesting down at eye level.

These expensive train stations represent a commitment to rail travel in China.  But the fact that they are so far from cities reduces their advantage over air travel.  The stations are almost as far from the city as airports, so when you add the travel time on both sides, the train will take a lot longer than a plane.  Will the grand new generation stations themselves lead to the decline of train travel in the long term future?

The new Guangzhou South station and the Beijing South station built in 2008 were both designed by TFP Farrells, based in UK and Hong Kong.  Wuhan station was design by Arep, based in Paris.  The local design institutes serve as local architect-of-record. For now, the way to get to the Guangzhou South station is a shuttle bus from the Hanxi Changlong metro station on line 3.  Walk to the small bus terminal above the station, and its easy to find the bus going to the South Station.  The ride takes about 15 minutes each way, and costs 2 yuan.  A new subway line will go there someday.

[UPDATE, October 2010: The new subway line to Guangzhou South station is now open.  line 2]


China’s First Starchitect

Ever since the founding of the People's Republic, China has mostly avoided overt traditionalism in it's public buildings.  In the early years they were in a stark, Soviet style. More recently, the country has embraced international contemporary architecture.  If you need examples, think of the Beijing CCTV tower, Shanghai World Trade Building, Guangzhou Opera House.  Most have been designed by starchitects (a recently invented word combining "star" and "architect", meaning celebrity architect) who happen to be from somewhere outside the middle kingdom. To it's credit, so far China hasn't cared too much where the designer is from, as long as the design is good (the China Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo is a recent exception; it was designed by a local architect. I will discuss that building in a future post, after I get the chance to visit).  All of this was put into motion by a pioneering generation of architects from the Republic of China era.

At the forefront of that generation was Lu Yanzhi 吕彦直(1894-1929). He was born in Tianjin, spent time in Paris as a child, was educated at Qinghua University, then went abroad to study architecture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. While there, he would have studied the typical curriculum of the time, based on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It focused on studying and imitating classic European buildings. That included making lots of drawings imitating traditional European styles. Much of his student work still exists in the Cornell University archives. After graduation in 1918, he returned to China and practiced in Shanghai.

It was from his office in Shanghai that he won international competitions to design two important buildings: first the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum in Nanjing, and soon after the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou. Sun, whose Chinese name is Zhongshan, had died just a couple years before in 1925. The purpose of the buildings was to memorialize a man beloved for overthrowing the last emperor in 1911.  They also were meant to legitimize Sun's successors in the Nationalist political party and solidify their power by connecting them back to a great hero.  I think they can thus be seen as the most important civic buildings in China at that time.

a student drawing by Lu Yanzhi, from the Cornell University online archives

Lu's great innovation was to introduce modern building technology to Chinese architectural form. In doing so, he helped liberate Chinese building design from it's old conventions.  Actually, while his buildings use Chinese motifs and decorative elements as inspiration, they are in many ways very modern in their planning and massing.  He achieved shapes and forms that we're impossible before.  And the traditional elements are stylized and adapted to new materials: concrete and steel.

The Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou is a large auditorium on the north-south axis of the old city, at the foot of Yuexiu Hill.  In terms of form and layout, the building is a circular hall with pavilions on each side.  It is clearly a descendant of the Pantheon in Rome, which has inspired the form of so many structures, including the Columbia University Library in New York, and the Qinghua University library.  The building is made with structural steel construction, with reinforced concrete infill.  It's shaped like the Chinese character for mountain or hill "山".  At the very peak is a octagon shaped room.

Layered roof design is something often seen in significant Chinese buildings.   The Memorial is divided into 4 layers.  Here it is quite unique and complex, as everything is intersecting at 45 degrees, instead of the typical 90.

For comparison, below is another significant building in Guangzhou from the same time period.  This is the old administration building at South China Agricultural University.  It's plan is a "U" shape, with the traditional arrangement of rectangular buildings, corridors, and small rooms inside, relating back to Qing Dynasty government buildings. The building also uses concrete but primarily as a decorative material, to form the roof ornament and railings.  It employs more traditional, less stylized traditional ornament.

Many traditional Chinese buildings used wenshou ( also called "zoomorphic") ornaments on the roof eaves.  Traditionally, these ornaments are very detailed sculptures of animal and human forms.  The wenshou on Lu's building are very highly abstracted into nearly geometric forms, almost "deco" in style.  Clearly, Lu didn't totally accept the slavish imitation of ornament encouraged by the Beaux-Arts style.  Stylized wenshou can be seen on other buildings from that era, but Lu's are particularly genius.  They represent the form of tradition but question and modify it.

Wenshou ornaments at Sun Yatsen Memorial (above), and the Forbidden City in Beijing (below)

The auditorium has no columns, an example of long span steel structure which was rare in Chinese buildings at that time.  The roof is suspended by a complex trussed steel structure.  Above the suspended ceiling is a large light room, which softens the light before allowing it to trickle into glass lights in the ceiling.  The effect is very wonderful.

auditorium interior

an original architectural drawing showing a section through the building.  Notice all the space above the auditorium ceiling.

a photo of a photo, showing the steel structure above the roof

decoration on the porch ceiling, made of mosaic tile.  Not a traditional Chinese material, this is an example of adaptation of western materials to Chinese design.

A detail at the stone course that surrounds the base of the building.  Notice the Celtic/Victorian stone carving.

Lu's fame was too short lived.  He died in 1929 at the age of 35, while the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall was still under construction.  He surely designed other buildings in his short career, but unfortunately they have been forgotten in the fog of history.  The Sun Yatsen Memorial hall represents the promise of a bygone era.  Reflecting on Lu's work, I see a vision of a different China that could have been, where east and west gracefully intersect, without the schizophrenic hate-love relationship between outside and inside China that persists into our time.


Guangdong Provincial Museum

irregular openings colored red on the grey exterior intrigue the viewer to come closer

I made my first trip to the new Guangdong Provincial Museum on Tuesday, June 29. It won't be my last visit. It's in the middle of the new planned CBD, Zhujiang New Town, next to the Opera House, with a nice view of the river, and the new TV tower across.  This prominent location of the museum for China's most populous province shows both the importance of the museum and the prominent place ZJNT is destined to have in the province. The architect was Rocco Design Architects from Hong Kong.

The official metaphor for the building is a Chinese lacquer box. From afar, it's most notable exterior feature is irregular rectangular cutouts. The inside of the cuts are a bright Chinese red and the building cladding is a dull dark gray, creating an intriguing look that demands the viewer to investigate. The form is such a monolith, with so little information about what's inside, that you have to be forgiven for not noticing that the building is oriented away from the street and towards the central axis. From there is a sweeping grass ramp that rises up to the structure's pedestal. For now, that means most people are entering from the rear.  Make sure you walk down to the axis to see how the building connects with its site.

As I walked up to the pedestal under the building, my first impression was amazement at the tremendous cantilever hovering above.  It seems very simple but a lot of work went into creating that illusion. It's made possible by a huge truss that takes up the entire 6th floor.  Structurally, the building's walls and floors are actually hanging from the roof.  Not to be missed, there is an exhibit on the second floor about the building's design, where you can view a video illustrating the process of building that truss next to the building and sliding it into place on tracks.

Now that you're inside, remember those irregular cutouts? Turns out that they are small window alcoves between the exhibits that make nice places to look out at the views of the city.  When I visited, visitors were very enthusiastic to look out these at the newly unveiled views.  They also bring natural light into the spaces between exhibits.

From inside, the exterior concept is mostly not evident.  Instead, the organizing principle is a center atrium.  Around the atrium are a few layers of punched and folded aluminum panel suspended between roof and floor, resulting in different levels of transparency in places.  The panel breaks up the space of the atrium, allowing you to see through the building but never get overwhelmed by its scale.

The building's design is certainly ambitious, but unfortunately it's plagued by some sloppy finish work.  The wood floor was scratched badly throughout the building, though the building had been open for about a month when I visited.  And there were too many random little boxes built out of the floor or wall, evidence of poor integration of structure with mechanical systems.  Another problem is that there is a lot of wasted space, especially high up around the atrium, large areas that aren't part of circulation and don't have something like a nice view that could make them usable public space.

Ultimately though, any museum will succeed or fail on the quality of the exhibits.  By that account, the museum is very good.  Some of the highlights:  a beautiful collection of traditional wood carving, thorough exhibits of the province's history during the Republic of China period, and an exhaustive display of preserved specimens of Guangdong's varied plant life.  The presentation is superb, and almost all displays include English translations.

To get there, take metro line 3 to Zhujiang New Town station, exit B1.  From there, it's about a 10 minute walk south towards the river and around the opera house.  Admission is free, but you must show some ID to get your free ticket.


Xiguan canal resurrected


I stumbled on an interesting urban renewal project last week while searching for old PRC propaganda posters.  I had googled Guangzhou antique shops, and was pointed to Lizhiwan Road, on the eastern edge of Liwan Park in Fangcun District.  But when I got there, I found that almost all of the shops had been shuttered.  Workers were using hammers and pry-bars to demolish the small brick stalls built up next to the sidewalk.  Curiously, one side of the road surface had been cleanly cut away, revealing a deep concrete trench below carrying some very nasty water.  At first, I assumed that this was just another sewer replacement project.  But then I noticed the architectural renderings plastered to nearby fences that show the street is being turned into a canal to better attract tourists.  Locals were gazing at the renderings trying to make sense of what their community will soon become.

I can't be sure, but I would suspect this road used to be a canal that was covered during some past modernization project.  Or, it's possible that the trench was built as a sewer and has always been one.  There is still a some untreated sewage pouring into the now open trench from the surrounding neighborhoods.  That will have to be addressed, probably by capturing the waste water inlets and directing them to a new drain under the canal.  That will mean the "real" river will be below, with a man-made clean river pumped above.

Restoring urban streams long hidden and neglected is a good idea, and one that has been gaining popularity as a renewal tool.  One example is the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul.  Restored streams do a lot to improve the quality of life in cities dramatically.  They provide a corridor for walking and cycling, a gathering place for community interaction, etc.  Like railroad trestle parks and bike paths, they create a new way to move through the city, stimulating new connections that can expand people's idea of community and create fresh thinking. They also provide an area where urbanites can access some nature.  While they're not really natural, as a product of intense planning and construction, restored rivers do introduce elements of nature back into the city.  If the project scale is large enough, it can attract wildlife such as amphibian, fish, and even bird species into the restored corridor.

In the river restoration sense, this project is a good start.  It's sure to improve the popularity area as a tourist attraction, assuming it can successfully deal with the sewage problem.  The scale of this project is too small to create a corridor that can improve the city as a whole.  But there are some other streams around Guangzhou that I hope will receive similar treatment.  One is the twisty Daohaoyonggaojia elevated road that runs north from the Jiangwan bridge.  The road was built to alleviate traffic North South traffic congestion by taking advantage of an unused corridor, a large stream.  It follows the twists of the stream, casting a shadow over the stream and making it a rather neglected and underutilized resource.

I'm not sure where all of the antique vendors have gone for now, but they will be back.  Chinese small businessmen are nothing if not persistent and dedicated. Removing the stalls is revealing the old buildings behind and will allow the community that used to be cut off from the park to better connect to this area.  According to the rendering, these stalls won't be coming back.  Instead there will be an interior antique mall somewhere in the project. I'm sure some of the vendors will see that as an improvement, but I don't.  Little storefronts on the street are a part of traditional Chinese urban planning.  Without the established vendors on both sides of the street, the street will be less interesting, with or without canal.


Heart of the Sea Pagoda

Chigang Pagoda and the new TV tower

On the Metro line 3, between the transfer stations of Zhujiang New Town and Kecun, there is the station called Chigang Pagoda.  Whenever I ride line 3 through this station, only a few people get on or off the packed train. It may be the least used station of the subway system within the city center. The station is named after a very old temple pagoda which is a short walk from the station, through a residential neighborhood. Eventually, the station will be busy with people going to another tower.

Near the old pagoda is the new Television and Sightseeing Tower. It's still under construction and not yet open to the public, but it's already becoming one of the new icons of the city. The reigning city icon, found on everything from city trucks to the Asian games logo, is a statue of 5 rams in Yuexiu Park. If the tower proves popular and successful, and I think it's design is good enough to make it so, then it will probably become the new icon/logo of Guangzhou, in the same way the Eiffel tower is the icon of Paris. It's official name is the Heart of the Sea Pagoda, in Chinese of course! Incredibly, the person who thought of that uninspiring name won 100,000 yuan for winning the naming contest. I just call it the new TV tower.

Like the cutting-edge new CCTV building in Beijing, the Guangzhou tower was designed by a Dutch architecture firm. The main concept is simply 30 gigantic steel tubes which rise straight up to the top while tilting laterally, which makes the structure thin at the middle at wide at the top and bottom. There is secondary bracing structure spiraling in the opposite direction. The effect created is the diamond-shaped openings get smaller and the structure denser towards the middle. At night, when colored LED lights are used to indirectly light the structure at each opening, this effect becomes clear. It's sexy, and a little mysterious, feminine. If Paris has the tower of Mister Eiffel, this one is Ms Guangzhou.

The top of the antenna is 610 meters, making it the second tallest freestanding structure in the world, second only to the new Burg Khalifa in Dubai. The tower looms through the heavy smog as I walk around the city. It has helped me to better understand the verb "to loom", defined as to appear, take shape, or come in sight indistinctly as through a mist, esp. in a large, portentous, or threatening form. The top of the structure is so tall and massive, widening as it gets taller, that it feels as though it is right above you even when you are several kilometers away.

Basically, the tower has two purposes: hold up some digital antennae, and attract tourists. Suspended inside the twisting steel structure there are 5 multi-story "pods." There will be the entertainment program; theaters, restaurants, and so on. The primary purpose of the tower is tourism, but unlike a lot of other construction in Guangzhou, it's not specifically for the Asian Game. Construction started before GZ won the competition for the games.

I had a great opportunity to go to the top of the tower in autumn 2009, soon after the exterior structure was completed. The sequence is like this: you enter into the two-story pedestal building that the tower sits on. You get on the elevator, and it takes you through the core that runs up the middle of the building, and through the 5 "pods". The elevator reaches the top in less than a minute, at what is called the 84th floor. That should be the main observation gallery. From there, you can walk up 2 flights of stairs to the roof, which is 490m above the ground. The top of the structure seems truncated at angle for... well, no apparent reason. But the design of the observation deck is quite clever. It is terraced up following the structure, so from the apex you can look back across the river with no rails or guards blocking your view. Its surprisingly large, and feels like a spacious park up in the air. I've been to the observation deck of quite a few of the worlds tallest buildings, but this one is different. In fact, it's so tall that looking down, you don't actually feel you're on a building, rather the perspective is more like being on an airplane as it flies over a city towards the airport.

From the top, the focus is on the view along the North-South axis. Across the river, the new cigar-shaped IFC West tower, with its stretched out X-bracing visible behind its bluish glass, dominates the skyline. The construction for its twin is just beginning. At its foot is the just-opened opera house by British Architect Zaha Hadid. Beyond is the Tiyu Sports Center. And beyond that is the Citic Plaza, long the tallest, most modern building in Guangzhou and now a dated post-modern has been. And framing the back of the view is Baiyun Hill, a green oasis in this hyperactively urban city. Through the diamond of the structural members you can see old Guangzhou, Chigang Pagoda, forgotten hundreds of meters below.


Canton Favorite: Bones

In the west, Chinese food means bright red sauce, rice, and puffy chunks of breaded boneless meat. Meat without a positive identity. In Canton, food has bones. Also, sometimes a head or foot.  Westerners are left to fret they are eating a pet at their local chop suey joint, while Cantonese people are not squeamish about knowing exactly which one.  Seriously, eating dog meat is fairly common for Cantonese people.  However, they will usually draw the line at cats.

Leaving in some identifying parts has its benefits. For one, it assures customers that they're being sold the real product. Counterfeit things are a pervasive problem in China, and it leads to a kind of paranoia.   A persistent but probably false urban myth in China that many people believe says there is a factory somewhere in the countryside churning out fake eggs  (there is even a purported training video on YouTube about how to make them).  One of my English students insists that 75% of restaurants are using counterfeit cooking oil derived from middle-eastern crude.  But, the Cantonese are under no illusion where real animal products come from. In contrast, many urbanite westerners are a little vague about it all. A family member who raises chickens and sells the eggs was once asked where his egg factory is.

In China, fish is not "seafood", its just another kind of meat; and its served whole body style, almost without exception. Fish fillets are unheard of, except the Fillet-O-Fish.  It's not really very popular anyway; it seems a bit suspiciously anonymous to the Mainland consumer.  A Cantonese person will soldier through a whole fish, swallowing everything with relish, while foreigners will try to pick through a fish and spit the bones out. But a host will accept such sensitivity to fish bones in a foreign guest.

On the other hand, it's completely acceptable to spit out mammal bones. Usually this is done by positioning one's mouth over an empty spot on the table, and letting drop. In serving a dish, whether there is significant meat on the bones is not considered important. One popular dish is pork knees in sauce: pig legs sawed close above and below the joint, with the tender skin and fat crisply roasted, but little meat to speak of.

Significantly, the fast food chain KFC has gained a noticeable advantage over McDonald's in mainland China.  Perhaps it's because KFC offers more products with genuine bones included. But in Canton, it's not only full chicken legs and wings that get bones-in treatment. Every good meat dish is sliced with a heavy cleaver in a Cartesian fashion, creating a neat grid of chops overlaying the organic bone structure. Predictably, the bones splinter into an array of wondrous chips and marrow.

Appreciation for bones is widespread in Canton, but not universal in China. According to an interview I read with one of  Mao's old chefs, the former Chairman required that he be served only de-boned meat. He was quite picky. Someone once said he was the anal leader of an oral fixated people.  True enough, leaving bones in does give you something to occupy your tongue. Freudian analysis aside, it also can add taste and nutrition to your food.


Subterranean and shopping in GZ

Kingsway mall

Beijing has the legendary Underground city.  It's a stunningly large network of civil air defense tunnels, all hand dug in the sixties and seventies during the peak of the regime's paranoia over nuclear conflict with the USSR.  Guangzhou has a kind of underground city, too.

Cities all over the world have tunnel cities in the city center.  Lots of places in Asia have them; Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei. In China even mid-sized cities like Tianjin, Xian and Qingdao have a few. Bits of the Beijing Underground have been converted to use by small factories, but today it remains mostly forgotten by locals.  In Guangzhou, the underground tunnels are newer, and rise out of a different motive than in Beijing: shopping. In Guangzhou, most underground malls are from one of two sources: Property development by the Guangzhou Metro corporation, or private developers.

The first time I came to Guangzhou, the underground malls intrigued me more than anything. They seemed to everywhere branch off from subway stations. Some are obviously struggling, but most are teeming with people walking slowly, making it difficult to go anywhere fast. It raised so many questions in my mind. How do people even know this is here?  Do they enjoy being here in places devoid of natural light and ventilation? They seemed to defy every bit of logic about retail commerce I'd ever accepted as truth.

At GongYuanQian Station, one of 2 major transfer stations in the metro system, is a large 3-level mall called Comic City.  The mall is mecca for shops that sell small cute items like fashion handbags and Japanese comic merchandise. It also harbors the only underground Starbucks in Guangzhou. Unlike most other underground malls, which are linear and follow the street, Comic City is rectangular, and sits under the edge of People's Park. Its exit atrium go up into the park, allowing some sunlight down into the mall. The mall is well connected to every level of the station, you can even enter directly from the subway platform.  It's clear why connectivity to the metro is so good; the mall was developed by the Metro Corporation itself.  Taking a cue from the Hong Kong MTR, the Guangzhou Metro has established a major revenue stream from property development inside and attached to their system. As public and private is often blurred in China anyway, the result is seen as good for the metro system. The Metro itself benefits from the increased value of the property near their stations, and perhaps it gives them the incentive to expand their property empire by expanding their system through the city.  Guangzhou Metro expansion is breathtakingly aggressive; there are 5 lines now, with 4 to open this year alone, and a plan for more than 20 total by the end of this decade.

A short above ground walk from the Guangzhou Train Station lurks a very different mall.  "Guangzhou's First Tunnel" is a wholesale garment market that caters both to locals, and to African and Middle Eastern exporters. You're more likely to hear Edo or Farsi than English here. The mall is shaped like a large cross under 4 street blocks, it's 2 floors deep, and each wing follows the slope of the street above which is a bit disorienting. The mall is so big that there are actually 3 branches of a coffee chain called "One Dollar Coffee", which shamelessly appropriates Starbucks logo and store design. The mall was developed by a private developer who actually specializes in underground malls around China.  It's not actually connected to the subway tunnels, rather there are numerous stairwells from the sidewalk. Curiously, each entrance has a large vault-type door open but standing at the ready.  This and some of the other Guangzhou underground malls may share something in common with the Beijing underground.  Then, civilians were assigned to dig tunnels.   Today, It's believed that the China government gives subsidies to underground mall builders who make their malls up to the standard air defense shelters, if they agree to give them up in the event they're needed.

The successful malls seem to provide a shortcut to somewhere else, the struggling ones go nowhere interesting.  Guangzhou's underground malls rely primarily on foot traffic and impulse purchases.  Most don't really function as a destination, but as a path to somewhere that provides diversions along the way. Some of the malls even double as pedestrian tunnels under dangerous street crossings.  They are easily walkable, not always true of this city's paving block sidewalks, which are uneven and eternally under reconstruction.  Above most of the tunnels are commercial areas, but they don't seem depopulated by the mall.  In most cases, the sidewalks are still so congested that it's faster to take the underground mall.  The land cost for underground malls is low, but the construction and operating costs are higher than for traditional malls.  But in a city like Guangzhou, already bursting at the seams and still growing, its just another direction to expand. Sometimes it's easy to forget where you are, until an inevitable whiff of mildew hits you and you remember, you're in one of Guangzhou's underground shopping malls.

Visitor's Guide to Guangzhou's Underground Malls:

  • Comic City- Line 1 and 2, Gongyuanqian Station.
  • Kingsway- Gongyuanqian Station, exit D.  Features snack stalls and Asian brand stores.  Ends near Beijing Lu pedestrian street.
  • Guangzhou's First Tunnel- Line 2, Guangzhou Train Station, exit D4.
  • Festival Walk- Line 1 and 3, TiyuXiLu Station.  Features small boutiques and Asian brand stores.  Ends near the Guangzhou Book Center.  Notice the vault doors at the entrances.
  • PoPark- Line 1 and 3, Guangzhou East Train Station, exit G.  Features the Japanese supermarket JUSCO and high end foreign brand stores.
  • KangWang Commercial Plaza- Line 1, Chen Clan Academy Station, exit C.  Features a McDonald's and budget fashion merchandise, very popular with students.
  • Update Mall- Line 1, Martyr's Park Station, connects to China Plaza Mall basement.  Features a McDonald's and Asian brand stores.
  • Diwang Plaza- Martyr's Park Station
  • Jiangnan Sunday- Line 2, Jiangnanxi Station.  Features Hong Kong fast-food chain Cafe De Coral, and independent fashion boutiques.
  • Tianhe Xin Di- TiyuXiLu Station.  Depressing and mostly empty.
  • New large underground malls are under construction, under Zhujiang New
    Town and Tiyu Sport Center.   There is a closed mall at Fangcun Station.


Putting on a Jacket, Donning a Hat

In preparation for hosting the Asian Games this November, Guangzhou is frantic with activity.  Part of this is what the creative Guangzhou people are calling "putting on a jacket and donning a hat", the project to remodel the exterior of many buildings. It's happening in quite a few older areas of the city commonly visited by tourists, including Shamian Island, Yide Street near Haizhu Square, and much of Zhongshan 1-8 Avenue.  First, bamboo scaffolding goes up over the facades.  Underneath, migrant workers from the countryside are doing re-plastering and repainting, some long-deferred maintenance, and in the case of Shamian Island stripping many layers of paint from the beautiful old stone facades.  After a month, the buildings emerge, looking like somebody with a very recent haircut.

A newer neighborhood, my neighborhood, Tiyuxi, is getting deeper surgery.  The neighborhood is known as a place to find independent fashion boutiques, coffee shops, and small western style pubs and restaurants.  There is a busy subway transfer station at the NE corner, and the neighborhood is wedged between the current CBD, Tiyuzhongxin, and the future CBD under construction, ZhuJiang New Town.  The area is pretty successful, most businesses seem to thrive.  Unlike in America, in China pedestrian only shopping streets seem to do pretty well.  Maybe it's because of the high urban density and people are accustomed to getting around on foot.  Of course, this may change if the China auto boom continues and the masses here develop a taste for the suburbs.

The buildings are mostly 8 stories tall, with one room shops in the ground floor and a network of paths between.  The whole area is about 8 square blocks, but there is only one public street.  A few of the paths are only open to resident cars, the rest are for foot and bicycle traffic only.   Most of the shops have unique storefronts, which seem to wrap the interior out over the exterior of the building.  Many shop owners have claimed the space between their building and the sidewalk, making stepping stone paths or decks. The shops seem to continue out into the public space.  The trees between the buildings create a nice scale.  Above the ground floor is all 1980s China apartment bloc monotony, drab mosaic tiles on concrete, stainless steel window bars and plastic awnings haphazardly added over time.  The area has a nice unpolished, urban feel.  There are high fashion young people parading around and grandmas walking babies.  It's usually a quiet place compared to the city outside, with little traffic noise.  But the sound of construction has come, and it seems all this is changing.

Workers are chipping off the tile and stripping the exterior to bare concrete, replacing windows, and gluing on new brick-colored tiles.  Some buildings are even getting mansard roofs and dormers.  The presentation boards brag the neighborhood will be European style.  Now, the scaffolding from the first building has been removed and the results are visible.  Other than the condensate and coolant lines  for AC which are now visible in high contrast with dark brick tile, the view from afar is not unpleasant.

From up close the work is incomplete, but already quite disappointing.  The exterior accoutrement of each shop has been removed.  Presumably, its now up to each shop owner to replace their storefront.  But its unclear how much freedom each store owner will have to design their storefront.  From the look of the rendering, the exteriors will be uniformed and sanitized into something resembling an American exterior "lifestyle center", a euphemism for a strip mall.

This is the contradiction.  The atmosphere of the place is what draws people here, and the businesses follow.  It is not regularity and conformance aesthetic standards that makes the place attractive, but individuality and uniqueness.  I don't know enough about the history of the neighborhood to know for sure, but I would guess it wasn't planned as an area for stylish shops.  Probably it just happened that way because of the ideas and motivation of individual of shop owners.  In Asia, uniformity is famously a virtue, and modernization is often seen as instituting uniformity.  Even the innately creative people who had a hand in forming this neighborhood may not see the contradiction in taking this functionally beautiful place and and "putting on a hat".